We Need to Learn to Live With COVID-19

“All of this has happened before, and will happen again.” – Lt. Kara Thrace, aka Starbuck, from the Battlestar Galactica (2004) TV show.

An advantage of being old is that whatever is happening, you have likely seen it, or something like it before. Every so often, society undergoes an upheaval and people have to change behaviours. For those of us who were around in the 1980s, there are some stark parallels to what happened then, and what society must do now in 2020.

The early 1980s were a different time not only for how we lived as a society, but for how medicine was practiced. This was particularly true with how we handled body fluids. As surprising as it may be to some younger readers, there was no such thing as universal body fluid precautions back them. If you had a known blood born illness like hepatitis, then sure, extra precautions were taken. But not for every body. When I was in medical school, there were multiple stories of a particularly nasty vascular surgeon who would squirt blood on trainees during surgery if they got an answer wrong to his questions. Needle prick injuries were routinely ignored. There was not a robust sharps disposal system. In short, it was very different.

A huge shift in society, and medicine, came when reports of a novel virus (sound familiar?) became publicized. This virus was new, deadly, and little was know about it. At first, this strange new illness seemed to only affect gay men. This led to all sorts of additional discrimination against the gay community, and even more ostracization then they were already experiencing. Mainstream media outlets routinely referred to it as “The Gay Plague” which clearly didn’t help matters. This also led to whack job conspiracy theories about its origins, some of which persist to this day.

This strange new illness was, of course, eventually named “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” or AIDS and the virus that causes it was identified (Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV). It was recognized that body fluid transmission could spread it and that it was not limited by sexual orientation. We learned it was possible to carry the virus and not have symptoms and you could get it from anyone.

And so, the age of universal blood and body fluid precautions began, and policies around this were implemented in hospitals and other health facilities between 1985-1988.

But there was also a shift in how society responded. Until then, most public service announcements around Sexually Transmitted Disease (like this painfully dated one from 1969) focused simply on encouraging people to get treatment after the fact. And accepting that it was possible for you (yes, sweet innocent you) to get an STD.

AIDS changed all that. Suddenly, an STD could be deadly. Suddenly there was no cure or vaccine. Suddenly, just getting treatment wasn’t an option, and education around prevention was mandatory.

With education, the public took precautions. “No glove, no love” was a popular catchphrase used to promote latex condom use as these were proven to significantly reduce the risk of transmission of STDs (including HIV). Public service announcements shifted to openly talking about prevention.

In short, people and society adapted, and changed behaviours to deal with this new virus.

Today of course, we are faced with a novel new virus, that is clearly deadly and is widely publicized. Little was know about it at the start, and we continue to learn about it. The virus seems to have originated out of China, and this has led to all sorts of anti-Asian racism (including from the President of the United States). There are whack job conspiracy theories about it. As we learn more about the virus, we know asymptomatic spread is possible, and that, yet again, anyone can get it. There is no vaccine (and despite Dr. Fauci’s optimism I’m not holding my breath) and no effective cure.

In response, hospitals and other health facilities are implementing new polices around Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Hospitals are taking extra precautions around elective surgery as the risk of mortality in patients who get COVID19 infections peri-operatively is ridiculously high. In my office I now see patients wearing a mask, eye protection, and surgical scrubs that I immediately remove after my day is done.

And now too, society will be asked to change in response to this most awful virus. The simplest thing to do of course, is to wear masks when you are in an indoor public place, or better yet whenever you leave the house. As mentioned in an earlier blog, one only has to look at Japan where there was poor social distancing, packed public transit and no closure of their famous karaoke bars, but people wore masks, and the number of infections was extremely low. Wearing them also is key to restarting the economy so we can get on with our lives.

Next, we need to accept contact tracing. Aggressive contact tracing in South Korea was largely responsible for their low rates of infection. I was glad to hear that Ontario will be introducing an app to do this. I can already hear the cries of invasion of privacy, but if we are to control this virus, we are going to have to figure out a way to contact trace safely, and protect personal privacy at the same time.

The big difference between the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and COVID19 now is, of course, the economic costs. The economy was never shut down then, and the kind of wholesale level of job loss we are experiencing now in (hopefully) once in a life time.

But if we are to get the economy running (and we must for a whole bunch of reasons, including the fact a good job improves overall health care), then society will need to adapt again. We did it forty years ago, and I believe we can do it again.

I am however, not looking forward to 2060…….

Critical Decisions Looming for Health Care

The past three months have seen us undergo a stress like we’ve never seen before in our lives. People have lost their jobs, been socially isolated, and, importantly, non COVID healthcare has been delayed significantly. It’s estimated that 12,200 hospital procedures are delayed each week in Ontario alone. (Back of napkin math suggests 125,000 procedures have been delayed since the start of the pandemic).

In Ontario, these sacrifices have had the desired effect. The number of patients with serious complications from COVID has been trending down. Because we are not able to test everyone, I look at the number of patients who are in hospital due to COVID, and especially those who are on a ventilator, as an indication of how widespread the disease is. Because Canadians did what was necessary to protect others, our hospitals have not been as overwhelmed as many had feared.

However, we are now facing another critical situation in healthcare. The complications that are arising in the people who had their healthcare delayed are reaching alarming proportions. Even at the best of times, our healthcare system was overburdened and overwhelmed. To add to all of that this additional backlog, and the fact that many of those patients have deteriorated and are sicker, and, well, you understand the dilemma we are facing.

I don’t have a degree in biostatistics, like current Ontario Medical Association (OMA) President Dr. Samantha Hill. I can’t crunch all the numbers and give you a statistically valid analysis of what we are facing. I can only speak to what I’m seeing in my own practice.

  1. a patient with significant stomach pain who had scans delayed for a month, only to discover cancer
  2. a patient who I diagnosed with melanoma, who still hasn’t gotten the required wide excision, and lymph node biopsy 8 weeks later
  3. a patient who sent me an email clearly indicating the desire to commit suicide because of the mental health effects of this pandemic (I got a hold of them and appropriate measures have been taken)
  4. a patient with a cough since January who still hasn’t seen a specialist
  5. a sharp increase in patients requesting counselling or medications for the stress and depression directly caused by the effects of the pandemic
  6. at least 5 patients who were already waiting for joint replacement surgery now delayed even more

Keep in mind that I am just one comprehensive care family in doctor in a province that has almost 10,000, and you get a sense of the scope of how much these delays are going to affect people.

This is why there is a real dilemma for those who make decisions about when and how to open up health care (and everything else). If we loosen restrictions, start opening the economy, and allow scenes such as what happened at Trinity Bellwood’s park, the number of patients with COVID will increase. But if we don’t, other people will die, or at least suffer life altering illnesses, from non-COVID related diseases.

In cold, unfeeling numbers, the worry by people like my esteemed colleague Dr. Irfan Dhalla is that we will accept between 10-40 deaths per day from COVID in Ontario. But the reality is that about 275 people a day die in Ontario from a myriad of causes (cancer, heart disease, stroke, suicide etc). What if the price of lowering the 10-40 numbers to zero, is to increase the 275 to 325? To be clear, I don’t know if we are at that point, and even more frankly, I doubt Ontario’s archaic health data systems could even help us figure it out. I just know that has to be a critical concern going forward.

So what can be done? The OMA has released a document on emerging from the lockdown, referred to as “The Five Pillars” paper. This is an excellent paper and it is worth reading. I would, however, add the following thoughts.

First, it’s obvious now, that wearing face masks going forward is essential. A look at Japan shows they did everything wrong, except wear masks, and they have one of the lowest COVID rates around. (And yes, I and others told people not wear masks before and in hindsight that information was wrong). This is particularly important to mitigate the expected second wave of COVID in the fall.

Second, we need to move procedures out of the hospitals where possible. Many procedures like colonoscopies, cataract surgeries, diagnostic imaging, minor surgeries and so on, can be done outside of hospitals. Ontario has an Independent Health Facilities Act which licences these premises and ensures that they follow a high level of standards. They tend to operate more efficiently than hospitals and can see more patients than hospitals (whole bunch of reasons why). Previous Ontario Health Minister, “Unilateral” Eric Hoskins stopped licensing them, and it’s a decision that desperately needs to be reversed.

Third, we need to get our health data collection done properly. In Ontario, the plan was to develop Ontario Health Teams (OHTs) throughout the province that would allow the different agencies that cared for a patient (hospital, home care, physicians etc) to co-ordinate care. As Drs. Tepper and Kaplan point out, “fighting this pandemic requires collaboration from every part of the system and the patient voice. That is the promise of OHT.” To do this properly requires seamless electronic integration of a patient’s health record, and this should also serve as the basis for collecting COVID data. A system like this could also aid with contact tracing if done properly.

For the sake of the health care of all Ontarians, we need to open up health care and the economy, and we need to do that sooner rather than later. With a little bit of vision and forward thinking, it’s possible to do this in a safe manner. Let’s hope that’s what we see in the next few weeks.

Better Contact Tracing Essential: Requires Improved Public Health Systems

Recently, I came across the following graph of the waves of the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919. I don’t know the exact source of this graph. However, the information on the graph lines up exactly with what the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) describes as the three waves of the Spanish Flu.

To be clear, nobody at this time knows if the same pattern will be followed by COVID19. We know that the flu tends to have decreased transmission in humid weather, but we don’t know if COVID19 (caused by a different virus) will follow that pattern. Or even if that will make a difference during the first season of a pandemic. There’s a nice video explaining that here.

However, should this pattern be followed by the COVID19, suffice it to say that we are all in for a very long road ahead.

So what can be done to reduce the intensity of the second and third waves (if they come)? Physical distancing of course is number one on the list. While many physicians (myself included) suggested not wearing masks in public initially, we know know that doing so will keep YOU from spreading COVID19 if you are a carrier. So wear a mask. Finally, we need a robust tracking and isolating system (aka Contact Tracing) for people who test positive for COVID19, which frustratingly, we don’t have right now.

Widespread testing for COVID19 along with Contact Tracing is what the four most successful governments in the world have done to control the spread of COVID19. We need to learn from these governments. But for now it is something that we seem to be unable to do in Ontario, and there are multiple reasons why.

Piecemeal Structure of Public Health Units (PHUs)

The first is the piecemeal structure of PHUs in Ontario. Now to be clear, PHUs are manned by terrific doctors and front line staff. I had the pleasure of meeting many of them during my term as President of the Ontario Medical Association and they are all excellent, hard working people. But the infrastructure of PHUs, from the point of view of this family doctor, leaves a lot to be desired.

By my count, there are about 40 Public Health Units across the Province. To a large extent, they work somewhat independently from each other and use different referral forms. My office has patients from patients in both the Grey Bruce and the Simcoe Muskoka health units, and while the staff in both units is excellent, it’s frankly annoying to have two different sets of forms to refer patients (and have two different formats of reports come in).

Worse, not all of the Public Health Units are on an electronic records (seriously, some use paper), and there is not one consistent electronic record for PHU’s across the Province. This only complicates the collection of data and the ability to Contact Trace.

Curiously enough, addressing the disjointed nature of the public health units was something that the current provincial government tried to address early in it’s mandate. Part of the initial plans were to reduce the number of PHUs and standardize the processes. This was supposed to result in savings of 25% in the PHU budgets. (NB – personally I can’t see that much in savings, I’m thinking closer to 10% would have been achieved).

Of course given what happened with the COVID19 pandemic, and the “two second sound bite” nature of our media reporting, the story has become “Doug Ford cut spending – we have a pandemic – solution – spend more”. It’s a nice simple argument. “Hey we spent more money, problem solved.”

However, just spending more on public health (and to be clear again – I support wise investments in public health), isn’t enough. There’s no sense in spending more on a disjointed system. What’s needed is to get all the PHU’s across the Province to integrate into one standard electronic system of record keeping, so that they can more efficiently and effectively contact trace.

More Wide Spread Testing for COVID19

Next of course, we still need more wide spread testing, and ideally we need something called “point of care” testing. Once again, the four countries I referenced earlier led the way in testing as many people as possible. So this needs doing as well.

APP for Contact Tracing

Finally, we really should authorize a provincial app for Contact Tracing. Alberta already has one. Alberta has taken many precautions to ensure that patient privacy is protected (app does not use GPS, has a randomized non-identifiable ID, erases data every 21 days etc). We could just use that one, or a more Ontario centric one like this excellent one developed by physicians . It has some what more features and ease of use but uses GPS. Better yet, why not link and App to a patient’s own health care portal like MyChart, which already integrates COVID19 test results?

As the New York Times pointed out, Contact Tracing is hard. However, we need to get on with it. Without effective Contact Tracing, we can’t mitigate against the potential second and third waves of this pandemic. Without mitigation, the economic and health disaster will continue and untold millions more will continue to suffer.

Here’s hoping that instead of just throwing money at a problem, governments of all levels invest smartly at the right tools (standardized PHUs, contact tracing APPs etc.) to deal with the COVID19 Pandemic. The alternative is too frightening to consider.